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This article is taken from PN Review 263, Volume 48 Number 3, January - February 2022.

Memorialising Rabindranath Tagore in Brighton Joe Winter

In 1878 a 17-year-old Bengali boy spent a short while at a school in Ship Street in Brighton. His father had sent him to England to study for the bar and he began his stay at an elder brother’s home in Medina Villas (exact number not known). Very soon he went to London, where he spent a further year learning a great deal, but without surrendering to the rigours of a formal academic institution. The boy had walked out of his Kolkatan (then Calcuttan) school at the age of fourteen, and backed wholeheartedly by a rich and intellectually wide-ranging household full of wonderfully gifted elder brothers, had simply found his own way.

He became India’s first winner of a Nobel Prize (in Literature in 1913), an internationally known writer in several genres, a composer of many hundreds of songs that have long been a mainstay of the Bengali world, an advocate for Indian Independence as famous as Gandhi up and down his land; and through his unending and passionate commitment to a forward-looking spirit of humanity across the continents, he became and still is a world-figure.

On 28 October 2021 a blue plaque recording his stay at the Brighton Proprietary School was unveiled at 7 Ship Street on the building that had housed the school. Some two hundred-odd people thronged the narrow road. India and Bangladesh, whose national anthems were played (both from songs composed by Tagore), were well represented; many were in national dress; there was a feeling, in the blowy air, with seagulls squawking and at times almost drowning out the various speeches being made, of something very Tagorean. As it happens the unveiling of the plaque coincided with the centenary of the birth of one of his deepest commitments.

Always engaged in social reforms for his land, in 1921 the poet set up a university in a village in Bengal and chose for its motto a Vedic text, ‘Where the world makes its home in a single nest’. Said the founder, ‘Visva-Bharati acknowledges India’s obligations to offer the hospitality of her best culture and India’s right to accept from others their best’. Visva-Bharati University still upholds the Tagorean ideal, as does the school Patha Bhavana he founded in the same village of Santiniketan twenty years before in 1901, where lessons are still held in the open (weather permitting), and where I am glad to have taught. In a present-day gathering intimately associated with the memory of the Indian polymath, as the plaque calls him, something intangible seemed to be re-captured for a moment. It cannot be named but it has to do with the acknowledgement of a free exchange of what matters most. For a moment the nest was in Britain in a small road.

How can one pin down the sense of freedom that can come to one from an idea of the works and days of Rabindranath Tagore? A visionary and a man of action, a maker of dreams and a taker of initiatives, he epitomises the creative current. It’s good to think of the boy he was savouring the air and drifting along, in the early stages of becoming the independent individual he was to be, by the seagulls and the sea.

This article is taken from PN Review 263, Volume 48 Number 3, January - February 2022.

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